BEIRUT: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon deliberated Tuesday whether it should terminate the prosecution of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine. It first must establish whether he is actually dead. Badreddine’s death was reported in Lebanese media on May 13. He was allegedly killed in an explosion near the Damascus airport, but details of the attack remain unclear. Hezbollah blamed “takfiris” for his killing. Commentators have suggested that the successful targeting of the party commander would have been a substantial achievement for rebel groups operating in the area, and alleged that Hezbollah covered up Israeli responsibility to avoid confrontation.
In a televised eulogy of Badreddine, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah dismissed the allegations, but reiterated the party’s long-standing refusal to cooperate with the court.
A portion of the speech was submitted as evidence by Prosecutor Graeme Cameron, along with news reports on Badreddine’s passing, coverage of his funeral in the Beirut suburb of Ghobeiri, and stills from televised memorial services held in Damascus and Tehran, where investigators identified his son and three brothers among the attendees.
Prosecutors have submitted requests to Lebanese authorities for additional confirmation, including a death certificate. They had previously obtained one from Syrian authorities for Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Mughniyeh was Badreddine’s brother-in-law and predecessor in Hezbollah’s top military post.
But Mughniyeh’s death certificate took a year to acquire. With the prosecution’s case well-underway, Cameron downplayed the significance of the document and voiced a desire to proceed. “It is open to you, in my submission, to find that there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of his death,” he told judges. “Would such a document add true corroboration of an independent sort to the evidence before you?”
Cameron cited as precedent a case in which the International Criminal Court terminated prosecution due to the apparent passing of defendant Saleh Jerbo, despite the absence of a death certificate. The court left open the opportunity to resume its case should he reappear.
Death certificates for Lebanese nationals who have died abroad are typically requested by family members through the local consulate, according to Walid Akoum, one of STL’s Lebanese judges. If one is not produced by the mukhtar, a change to the civil registry can be made by a confessional judge. The question was raised as to whether the presence of Badreddine’s family at his funeral, along with the public condolences offered by Grand Jaafarite Shiite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan, represented a commensurate level of confirmation.
But several members of the bench appeared to suggest that even if it were produced, a certificate might not sway them. “Is there any evidence other than that which comes directly from Hezbollah to indicate Mr. Badreddine is dead?” asked Judge David Re. Cameron acceded there was not.
Re also expressed reservations given the lack of evidence regarding the circumstances surrounding his death. Judge Nosworthy appeared to concur. “There’s no evidence that there was a body,” she said.
The threshold for establishing death in international courts can be high. Peter Haynes, representing the rights of the victims, noted that ICC waited for a death certificate before terminating its case against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, even though his killing was captured on video. ICC investigators have exhumed the bodies of alleged war criminals in Uganda to conduct DNA testing before closing their cases.
“I think that this is a little premature what we’re trying to do today,” Haynes said. “Photos of funerals and memorial services are not enough, it would send out the wrong message to the people of Lebanon, and set a dangerous precedent.”
Haynes said the court should pursue other means of confirming his death, including DNA evidence or testimony from family members. He noted that Badreddine had allegedly been arrested in Kuwait in the 1980s, and had probably been fingerprinted. “There is strong possibility that the means to identify his body exist,” he concluded.
The tribunal will hear further submissions on the subject Wednesday from Antoine Korkmaz, who has represented Badreddine at trial. Wednesday will also mark Lebanese attorney Emile Aoun’s first day as lead counsel for defendant Salim Ayyash, as he takes over for the departing Eugene O’Sullivan.
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